If not for an unexpected turn of the college coaching carousel some 43 years ago, Warren Bryant would not be in Lexington this week as a member of the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 14th induction class.
As 1973’s college football recruiting battles heated up, the Miami offensive tackle had no ties to the state of Kentucky and no plans on forming any. Bryant’s parents had definite, other ideas on where he needed to play.
“My parents, they wanted me close,” Bryant recalled last week. “I was going to stay in town.” Bryant dutifully committed to the hometown Miami Hurricanes.
The detour in Bryant’s road came when Miami’s head coach, Fran Curci, left the Hurricanes for the same job at Kentucky. “My parents were like, ‘Whoa, that changes everything,’” Bryant said.
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Rather than South Beach, Bryant followed Curci north and played a major role in one of the best UK football seasons of the modern era.
A powerful yet athletic offensive tackle, Bryant became a cornerstone on the University of Kentucky’s 1976 SEC co-championship team. To this day, he is considered the best UK offensive lineman of the Commonwealth Stadium (since 1973) era.
The sixth overall pick in the 1977 NFL Draft by Atlanta, the 6-foot-6, 273-pound Bryant went on to play 164 games, starting 93, in the NFL. During Bryant’s time in Atlanta (he also played five games with the Raiders), the Falcons made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history (1978).
On Friday at 7 p.m., Bryant, 60, will be inducted into the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame at the Lexington Opera House. Joining him in the 2016 induction class will be Blanton Collier, Council Rudolph, Myron Guyton and Ray Buchanan. Also recognized will be Dermontti Dawson, “a special honoree” of the Kentucky Pro Football Hall, and Howard Schnellenberger, who will receive the 10th annual Blanton Collier Award.
Curci’s arrival at Kentucky may have brought Bryant here on a recruiting visit, but the tackle says it was the presence of UK star running back Sonny Collins that sealed the deal.
“What got me, they showed me some film of Sonny,” Bryant said. “When I saw him running the ball, I thought (Kentucky) was the perfect place for an offensive lineman. I could see if you just opened a little hole, that was all Sonny was going to need.”
Curci, now 78, said last week Bryant was the recruit that legitimized for other top prospects — such as future UK stars Art Still, Derrick Ramsey and Jim Kovach — that going to Kentucky to play football was acceptable.
“He was the first real, high-level recruit we got at Kentucky,” Curci said of Bryant. “In that time, we recruited some pretty good football players — Ramsey, Still, Jimmy Kovach. But Warren Bryant was the first. He was so big, especially for that era. And he could move. That’s a pretty good combination for an offensive tackle.”
In Bryant’s first three seasons at UK, the Wildcats went 5-6 (1973), 6-5 and then suffered a 2-8-1 meltdown. However, in Bryant’s senior year (1976), Kentucky logged one of the best seasons in its modern history.
The Cats registered wins over West Virginia, Penn State, LSU, Vanderbilt and Florida, and carried a 6-4 record into its season-ending road trip to Tennessee. Still, UK went to Knoxville knowing a Peach Bowl bid — which would be Kentucky’s first postseason appearance since the 1952 Cotton Bowl — depended on beating the Volunteers. UK had not beaten UT since 1964.
Yet, silencing Neyland Stadium, Kentucky rode a dominating defense and a ball-control offense to a 7-0 win.
That meant Bryant’s final game in a Kentucky uniform came in the Peach Bowl, where UK throttled North Carolina 21-0.
“Oh wow, we were on a high,” Bryant said. “We were the first (UK) team in (25 seasons) to win a bowl. But we should have beaten them 42-0. We were down on the goal line three times in the first half and didn’t score. The final didn’t reflect the domination we had.”
Bryant was already playing with the Falcons when he became a member of Kentucky’s second SEC football championship team (1950 was the first).
On the field in 1976, UK had fallen 14-7 at Mississippi State. Months later, it was ruled the Bulldogs had used an ineligible player in the game. MSU forfeited, and Kentucky’s record went from 8-4, 4-2 SEC, to 9-3, 5-1. The latter mark tied Georgia for the 1976 SEC crown.
“We should have beaten Mississippi State anyway,” Bryant said. “But, yeah, they had an ineligible player, and that made us champions. I’ll take it.”
Today, Bryant works for an after-school program in Cobb County, Ga. In a time when there is much scrutiny on the health of those who absorb the physical pounding of long pro football careers, Bryant reports he is doing relatively well.
“My knees hurt, I move a little slower. And sometimes I struggle to focus a little bit,” he said. “But I’m still here and I’m doing good so far.”